It was an astonishing and festive assemblage.
Present were nearly all of Madison’s highly placed, activist African-Americans, a who’s who from the communities of religion, business, education, social welfare and politics. The group gravitas on Friday night was palpable.
Blacks mixed with the mayor, school superintendent, police chief, white City Council and Madison School Board members, the head of the chamber of commerce, many of the city’s top business executives, professors, teachers, leaders from the United Way and the Madison Community Foundation, heads of nonprofits, and many others from Madison’s white-dominated power structure.
Even better, there were scores of regular Madisonians on hand, blacks and whites, mixing on a summery weekend night and filling out the standing-room-only crowd of more than 700 at the Alliant Energy Center.
In the front row, seated together in poignant symbolism, were old and young: Milele Chikasa Anana — “Miss Milele” — a revered Madison civil rights activist who actually attended Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, and Brandi Grayson, an outspoken leader of Madison’s Young Gifted and Black coalition.
The audience heard about a framework to fight Madison’s racial disparities, one authored exclusively by local African-Americans in a coalition called Justified Anger.
The Cap Times sponsored the celebration, but, much more significantly, announced that the Evjue Foundation, our charitable arm, is donating the first $150,000 to help execute the plan. As I said from the podium, the cause fits perfectly for a foundation named for William T. Evjue, the Cap Times’ founder, a man who fought for civil rights for more than 50 years.
As I scanned the audience Friday night, I was reminded of a plea circulated by white clergy after the death of black teenager Tony Robinson and the decision not to charge the white police officer who shot him. In a message urging reconciliation, it asked everyone to “pray for our divided city.”
Our divided city.
Madison, I think, sees itself as many things: progressive, educated, eclectic, at times zany. We see ourselves as a sort of city on the hill. But divided? Yes, that also fits.
So what does Justified Anger's “Our Madison Plan” actually represent?
Darrell Bazzell put it best, speaking for fellow African-Americans about the initiative over dinner last fall: “This is our community saying, ‘We’ve got this.’ ”
Bazzell, who is vice chancellor for finance and administration for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, spoke first Friday night and is one of many blacks, some with prominent jobs but many not, who have been drawn in to the coalition over recent months. They see this as something unprecedented — a broad-based and purely black-led reform effort.
Does the fact that this effort is black-led guarantee its success?
No, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly the right thing to do.
It will require blacks and whites to thread a needle. Blacks know they must collaborate with white leaders even though many blacks feel they have been marginalized in past efforts to combat racial inequities.
White leaders, in turn, must not turn defensive, crossing their figurative arms and privately grumbling that this idea has already been tried or that one is unfeasible.
In a perfect world, success would unleash a combustible energy from scores of African-Americans with topical expertise and many, many more blacks likely to buy into an effort led by people who, as they often say, “look like them.” An army of volunteers stands ready to support this effort.
Many millions of public and private dollars have been spent on racial disparities over the years, largely directed by well-intentioned white decision-makers, and the resulting measurements of inequality are still startlingly bad.
But for all the awareness around metrics, most notably to the “Race to Equity” report in 2013, it is something else that has surprised me most over the past two years.
I’ve come to understand that, regardless of socioeconomic position, blacks generally feel a profound cultural separation in Madison that I think would truly shock many whites.
My writing about race has brought me into situations and conversations where I have, perhaps naively, been surprised by the emotion and, frankly, the skepticism, about The Cap Times’ determination to keep the struggles of African-Americans in the spotlight.
I’ve watched throughout 2014 and into 2015 as this black-led plan was developed against a backdrop of police shootings of blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and, of course, here in Madison.
I’ve heard black skepticism as to whether the white power structure would subtly but inevitably obstruct the effort. More than once, a black person has asked me whether I would be permitted to keep shining such a bright spotlight on race, suggesting some powerful but unidentified force might intervene.
I also witnessed some hand-wringing and even sniping toward the movement by a few in the white community. Here is some of what I’ve heard and my retorts:
“Isn’t this just the Alex Gee show?” No, the coalition is broad and deep, a truth that was in full view Friday night. The reverend is the effort’s charismatic leader, which it needs, but there are many experts driving conversations about subjects such as education, incarceration and economic development.
“Do we really need another structure?” Yes, because of the distinctive character of this one, driven by those with the highest stakes in the outcomes.
“What about the gangs and gun violence in the city; what are they doing about that?” They are working passionately to fix the underlying, systemic conditions that produce such behavior. What would you have them do? (It reminds me of commentary after deadly gang violence by white bikers in Texas. Where were the laments about “white-on-white” crime or the cries of a “thug” white culture?)
“Why is this so closely identified with the church?” Madison can be fairly skeptical about organized religion, but whites need to understand that black churches are usually the most influential social and organizing entities in African-American communities.
In a Cap Times story coming from the event, Mayor Paul Soglin summed it up: “I think we’re in a magical point in that we’ve got the largest and the deepest commitments I’ve ever seen to systemic change.”
Now, on to action.